Monday, January 10, 2011

Michael Anderson: The Street is My Palette at Claire Oliver Gallery

Even a close reader of Lippard's book Pop Art, (New York : Thames and Hudson, 1996), can find it hard to produce a concise definition of the movement that gives the book its title. Surely, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein had something in common; they all found a way to re-appropriate images from pop culture into painting, sculpture, drawing, and collage. Yet reasonable people could object to describing the goals or preoccupations in their work as part of a "movement." They had no written manifesto to stand by, and while some Pop artists--most of all Warhol--embraced the identity of an eccentric celebrity, he was not an enthusiastic or articulate spokesman (please try to find it in your hearts to forgive me for not properly footnoting Donna De Salvo's book, Success Is a Job in New York: the Early Art and Business of Andy Warhol here; I haven't figured out how to do that yet). Compared to the the meditative, intellectual attitude of, say, many Abstract Expressionists, Pop art seems invoke a shoulder shrugging, almost nihilist sensibility, typified by Warhol's judgment that art was simply "what you can get away with."

To be fair, there is something quite different from nihilism--indeed quite cheerful and optimistic--in the embrace by fine art world of images from pop culture. If you put a picture of a soup can on a wall-size canvas, frame it, and place it on a gallery wall, people may very well contemplate that image in a new way, and walk away with a mindfulness and appreciation of line, color, and form that can and should work outside of the museum space. In this context, viewers use tools that often atrophy when our senses are bombarded by the stimuli of advertising and mass media. Pop art assumes a certain ability on part of the viewer to adapt to a new, vigorous visual language, and inasmuch as it promotes this reversal, Pop art is optimistic.

What's troubling about Michael Anderson's solo show now on view at the Claire Oliver Gallery on West 26th St is how little the works chart out a language in which people can see or read images from TV, movies, and advertising in a new and concrete way. While the collages--made from pasting together cut out sections of street advertisements and billboards--show an immense amount of meticulous technique and energy, the energy seems indirect, indiscreet, and random.

Parts of Anderson's canvas are fun to look at. The fragmented and re-composed pictures of Snoop Dog or Britney Spears in Niggas Can't Never Get Nothing are pretty cool, and it might be hard to turn away from the shirtless model wearing stars and stripes-patterned pants abutting a flying Spider Man over Central Park in Derek Jeter's Lifetime Contract. Yet it's hard to say when or how the attention span arrives at a new discipline from seeing these pictures side by side, or how the new language that is established could be understood by anyone but Anderson. If our attention spans are feeble and easily swayed to begin with, how they might be exercised in a productive way from looking at such a jumble is unclear. Primarily, Anderson seems to be banking on the viewer's ability and willingness not to care.

It seems worth highlighting the collages' having being shaped--at least according to the press release--by "a deep appreciation for graffiti art." Just as letters in graffiti "often become so abstracted that they lose all eligibility," Anderson's works are "almost undecipherable" in the way words and faces are mixed and distorted in their new context. Indeed, like the collages, spray painted tags are oriented towards what is urban, improvised, fun, and visible from the street. They can also be characterized by a sense of messiness, egotism, aggression, and--quite often--nihilism. It's hard to create something meaningful merely by depicting your name in a very public and ornamental way. All that that results in is usually one, big "Me". Whatever language that is put into use is exclusively and solipsistically the author's.

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